Dear INDY readers and voters,
Welcome to our final slate of endorsements for the 2021 local election cycle.
Early voting for Orange, Durham, and Wake counties’ general elections begin this week, and we want to bring you the resources you need to head to the polls well-informed. We’ve already made endorsements for Durham races. We aren’t endorsing in the Wake County municipal races, but we do have candidate questionnaires from candidates running in Wake available on our website, in addition to questionnaires from Durham and Orange candidates.
To make our endorsements in Orange County municipal races in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, plus the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board race, we relied heavily on our own reporting from the past year. We also considered messages from Orange County residents and community members; endorsements from local leaders, advocacy organizations, and PACs; listened to candidate forums; read candidate questionnaires submitted to us and other outlets; and decided, as a staff, who we truly believe will be the best representatives to lead Orange County’s three major municipalities over the course of their two- or four-year terms.
All submitted candidate questionnaires are available on our website, and we’d urge you to read them in addition to these endorsements. We also have information online about early voting and voter registration online. Election Day is November 2. Whether you live in Orange, Durham, or one of the Wake County municipalities holding elections this year, please do your civic duty and cast your ballots.
Your local governments need your voice at the polls!
Jenn Weaver (Two year term)
Other candidates: None
Hillsborough mayor Jenn Weaver has accomplished a lot in the past two years, especially around issues of equity, social justice, and environmental sustainability. She also guided the town through the COVID-19 pandemic adeptly. In 2020, Weaver led the passage of a resolution with actionable items for the town to address including joining the Government Alliance on Racial Equity and establishing a community police advisory board. Weaver has championed bringing diverse voices to the table in city government and the town’s advisory boards. In her second term, Weaver says she will focus on developing a Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, financing and implementing upgrades and repairs to the town’s water and wastewater systems, and following through on recommendations from the Mayor’s Task Force on Re-Imagining Public Safety, which will come before the board, town manager, and police chief soon.
Though she has no opponent, we are happy to endorse Mayor Weaver for another term.
Hillsborough Board of Commissioners: Two Open Seats
Robb English and Kathleen Ferguson (Commissioners serve four-year terms)
Other candidates: Anna Linvill
A recreation specialist for the Town of Chapel Hill, Commissioner Robb English brings a valuable perspective to the Town of Hillsborough’s work around sustainability and climate action. As a member of several town and county boards, including ones addressing water and sewer, climate action, and parks and recreation, English will be well-positioned to work on the town’s Comprehensive Sustainability Plan—designed to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, advocate for mixed-use and mixed-income developments and higher density zoning, and address water and sewer infrastructure needs—that the board will likely pass and implement next year. As a 2019 appointee to the board, English has done good work so far; we would like to see him elected for a full term.
Since 2013, Commissioner Kathleen Ferguson has championed all that’s great about Hillsborough—its arts, culture, history, community centers, and small, independently owned businesses. Ferguson is also a staunch advocate for affordable housing: she says she wants to see redevelopment coming to downtown Hillsborough include affordable housing units alongside hospitality, retail, and arts-oriented spaces and says she hopes to see a dedicated one cent of property tax allocated to affordable housing in the town’s budget. Ferguson also has good ideas around community engagement and inclusivity in government. Her suggestions include creating a youth advisory board, exploring offering stipends to the town’s advisory board members to encourage engagement, and exploring participatory budgeting. We endorse Ferguson for another term.
Candidate Anna Linvill, who has lived all over the world, has done important work for the Hillsborough Arts Council. She also correctly identifies existing issues that need addressing around the town’s Historic District Commission processes, economic development, and vision for long-term development. (To be fair, the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, which will address development, is in the works).
But Linvill’s disregard for the town budgeting $40,000 for diversity and equity training is bothersome.
Our understanding of Hillsborough’s diversity and equity expenditure is not just to provide training but to educate officials and staff about, and to develop a plan to address, ways to include diverse talent and provide equal opportunities in all facets of government business, volunteerism, and community engagement. To us, this seems like $40,000 well spent.
Damon Seils (Two-year term)
Other candidates: Michael Benson
Damon Seils has served on Carrboro’s town council for eight years, and we are pleased to endorse him for mayor.
Seils began his town government service as a member of its planning board, where he advocated for the development of a comprehensive plan. Now, Carrboro is poised to adopt and implement a community-driven plan, Carrboro Connects, which will guide decision-making on sustainability and climate action, growth and development, affordability, and other priorities.
Seils also identifies improved transit service as a key priority and, as mayor, would oversee the implementation of Chapel Hill’s Short Range Transit Plan, adding seven-day-a-week bus service throughout Carrboro and Chapel Hill for the first time. The town has also made progress on the North-South Bus Rapid Transit project.
Seils has been a champion for equity while serving on the council, leading an effort to send town leaders to racial equity workshops and finding funds to pay for continued training. As a core member of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), Carrboro played a key role in developing the One Orange Countywide Racial Equity Plan. And Seils, a gay man, has worked with EqualityNC and the Campaign for Southern Equality to help communities across North Carolina to adopt nondiscrimination ordinances following the abolition of HB 2.
Seils’s opponent, Michael Benson, a local restaurant owner, did not return a candidate questionnaire. But in an email to the INDY, Benson says he “is against the [Southern Branch/203] library project in its current financial state.” Seils supports the project, as do we. Benson says he supports a light rail project connecting Carrboro to Durham. That sounds great, but we think focusing on Bus Rapid Transit options and building out the town’s greenways are (right now) a bit more feasible.
Carrboro Town Council: Three seats
Danny Nowell, Barbara Foushee (Members serve four-year terms)
Other candidates: Randee Haven-O’Donnell, Jacquelyn Gist, Aja Kelleher
We’re endorsing two candidates for three seats on the Town Council who we feel will best represent Carrboro’s changing demographics, interests, and needs.
We are impressed by the energy that Danny Nowell has brought to his campaign and with the 32-year-old’s dedication to organizing for racial and economic justice. On a council whose youngest members are 48 years old, we think Nowell will bring new ideas and a fresh perspective and hopefully will help move the town forward in some areas where it has stalled—namely providing alternate modes of transportation to decrease car dependency, improve transit connectivity, pedestrian routes and bikeways, and move the town toward a sustainable transit system. We also like Nowell’s platforms on participatory budgeting and re-evaluating zoning for more density for small businesses and multifamily housing.
Barbara Foushee is an able incumbent and, as the council’s only Black member, an important voice for the town, particularly as Carrboro grapples with the pillars of race and equity for the foundation of its comprehensive plan. Foushee understands the intersectionality of the issues of affordable housing, climate change, and environmental justice, and how to approach these issues through a lens of racial equity. She also has ideas around how to help residents and families most in need, such as raising the minimum wage, investing in education, and increasing the supply and variety of housing.
Foushee and Nowell seem to appreciate the need for alternate modes of transportation in Carrboro. This will mean having serious conversations about building out greenways and trails for cyclists and pedestrians.
We have endorsed both Jacquelyn Gist and Randee Haven-O’Donnell in the past, and they are both committed Democrats who have served Carrboro admirably for a combined 48 years. But we’ve heard from several residents that their stances, especially on development and building out Carrboro’s greenway system, have become reactionary rather than truly progressive.
We feel that one important way to move forward with transit alternatives in Carrboro is to develop the Bolin Creek Greenway. Environmental conservation and protection is important, but to truly address climate change, cities and towns will have to offer residents alternate modes of transportation. Building a paved path along Bolin Creek, which runs through Carrboro and connects to Chapel Hill, would address this. It’s time to have the conversation again and consider action, or Carrboro will continue to lag behind its neighbors to the east in terms of connectivity, genuine livability and equity.
While we don’t know enough about the fifth candidate in this race, Aja Kelleher, to endorse her, we’d encourage readers to check out her platform. According to her candidate questionnaire, Kelleher is an engineer and, if elected, would be the first Asian American woman on the council. She has good ideas around sustainability. She opposes the council’s decision to permit the Lloyd Farm development.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools: Three seats
George Griffin, Riza Jenkins, Mike Sharp (Members serve four-year terms)
Other candidates: Meredith Pruitt, Tim Sookram, Ryan Jackson
There are three open seats on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education and exactly three school board candidates we are proud to endorse.
George Griffin, a lifelong educator with a doctorate in special education, has worked as a special ed teacher, high school principal, N.C. Central University professor, program director, and school evaluator/accreditor. He identifies eliminating the school system’s racial opportunity gap as his top priority and notes that to do so will require “significant systemic changes in practice,” including addressing the de facto segregation that occurs in academically gifted programs and disparate out-of-school suspension rates. Griffin is a proponent of using alternatives to out-of-school suspension, suggests using the Racial Impact Assessment Tool as a starting point to address racial inequities, and lauds the school system’s recent hiring of a chief equity and engagement officer.
Riza Jenkins is a vice president at a clean energy company and has served the CHCCS community in various capacities for nearly a decade, including as a School Improvement Team member and the immediate past president of the CHCCS PTA Council. Jenkins says her priorities include increasing the intentional work around diversity and equity, providing social and emotional support and enrichments to students, and expanding summer learning programs. Like Griffin, Jenkins supports using the Racial Equity Impact Assessment Tool and says CHCCS should review its policies and programs by doing an equity assessment.
Mike Sharp, a 4th grade teacher for Durham Public Schools, has taught in CHCCS in the past and has worked as a teacher since 2002. Sharp calls for a commitment to equity and is clear-eyed about how the system has failed to prioritize equity in the past. Sharp also is clear about the system’s staffing issues and has ideas to recruit and retain educators including budgeting for permanent substitute teachers and better defining expectations of teachers around workloads, coverage for other teachers, and break times. Importantly, Sharp makes a point of advocating for disabled students, for whom he says additional staffers are needed, and for LGBTQ students.
All three candidates share our reservations about the roles of School Resource Officers, say the state legislature should comply with the state’s constitutional mandate to fund the Leandro plan, and have an accurate understanding of critical race theory. All opposed House Bill 324, a bill vetoed by Governor Cooper that tried to limit the teaching of systemic racism in public schools.
The same cannot be said about candidate Ryan Jackson, who said he supported House Bill 324 during a school board candidate forum. Jackson doesn’t have a campaign website, and he didn’t return a candidate questionnaire, so we don’t know what his views are on much else. But supporting House Bill 324 alone is, to us, disqualifying.
Meredith Pruitt, a close friend and former colleague of Margaret Spellings (a former UNC System President and George W. Bush’s education secretary who made disparaging comments about LGBTQ “lifestyles”), says the Board of Education should make decisions based on data. While that sounds good if you’re trying to grow your tech startup, it’s not clear what that actually means in practice for a school board member. Pruitt has raised $14,000 in venture capital—er, campaign contributions—the most of any CHCCS school board candidate probably ever. That’s good for Pruitt because she’s going to need every penny running as a Republican in Orange County.
Tim Sookram, local dad and Gentle Robot frontman, did not return a questionnaire and doesn’t appear to have a campaign website. We get the impression that Sookram isn’t taking his campaign terribly seriously.
Chapel Hill Mayor
Pam Hemminger (Two-year term)
Other candidates: Hongbin Gu, Zachary Boyce
Pam Hemminger led probably the most successful local COVID-19 response in the state and, her supporters will tell you, she went above and beyond to do it. Hemminger, in partnership with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, made sure students didn’t go hungry, providing more than a million meals and 11,000 free books to local children. The town helped provide more than $2.4 million in housing assistance to Chapel Hill families, and Hemminger and the council successfully balanced safety with the needs of the businesses by facilitating expanded outdoor dining, providing grants, and partnering with the Chamber of Commerce to provide PPE.
Hemminger and the council adopted a Climate Action Plan that identifies measures the town can take immediately to start addressing climate change. They also convened task forces on public safety and civil rights.
Other achievements include recruiting businesses; creating public sector jobs; purchasing the Legion Road property for a public park; adopting a mobility plan and completing new sections of greenways; awarding $5.2 million to create nearly 300 affordable housing units; regulating short-term rentals and taking steps to revitalize and spur economic development in a languishing downtown.
Hemminger is a solid leader who gives space for open discussion and disagreement on council, allows for different perspectives, and works to build consensus without creating rifts. She will be instrumental in guiding the town through the pandemic recovery and rewriting its Land Use Management Ordinance.
Hemminger’s primary opponent, Hongbin Gu, has been an important voice on the council, and her work reflects an admirable commitment to environmental consciousness and sustainability. We don’t want to see her leave the council, but we don’t agree with her assessment that Chapel Hill is on the wrong course. On the contrary, Chapel Hill looks to be growing in ways that it has long needed to and embracing the diversity in its residents that it has always said it is committed to.
We enthusiastically endorse Hemminger for a third term.
Chapel Hill Town Council: Four Open Seats
Paris Miller-Foushee, Karen Stegman, Camille Berry (Members serve four-year terms)
Other candidates: Robert Beasley, Vimala Rajendran, Adam Searing, Andrew Creech, Jeffrey Hoagland
Karen Stegman is described by her colleagues on council and others as the governing body’s “moral conscience,” a mentor to younger, newer council members, and a close partner to others with whom she’s achieved important goals.
Stegman, together with departing council member Allen Buansi, created the Criminal Justice Debt Fund, a program that provides financial support to low-income residents mired in the local courts system. She was also one of four council members who championed adoption of the 2020 Community Safety Resolution Together, which banned chokeholds and made other policy changes in Chapel Hill’s police department, and, building on years of advocacy from the Black Lives Matter movement, she helped launch the council’s Re-imagining Community Safety Task Force.
A proponent of an affordable housing strategy that has seen more affordable units built recently than ever before, Stegman is mindful of the town’s most vulnerable residents. She and council member Michael Parker brought a petition to the town calling for property tax subsidies for low-income homeowners whose property taxes rose to unaffordable levels in the 2021 revaluation.
We are happy to endorse Stegman for another term.
We also endorse newcomers Paris Miller-Foushee and Camille Berry.
Paris Miller-Foushee, an educator, has been involved in community service for decades, as one of the original organizers of the Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition and a member of the town’s Re-imagining Public Safety Task Force. She also serves on the EmPOWERment Inc. board of directors, where she advocates for property ownership and affordable housing for low-income residents. Miller-Foushee understands the town’s need for a unifying vision to guide development and affordable housing. Having grown up in public housing, and now a resident of the historic Northside neighborhood that was recently hit with unsustainable tax rates following revaluation, we think Miller-Foushee will bring a valuable perspective to the council that isn’t currently represented.
Camille Berry, a Chapel Hill resident who experienced housing insecurity while raising three children as a single parent, we feel will bring a similarly needed perspective to the town council. Berry has advocated for affordable housing through her work with the Community Home Trust and has volunteered with several local community organizations. Berry advocates for an inclusionary approach to long-term planning, including in redeveloping the Land Use Management Ordinance. She includes as part of her platform proposals to develop a strategy to assist residents of mobile home parks who face displacement and issuing a second affordable housing bond, among other initiatives.
We were torn between endorsing candidates Adam Searing and Vimala Rajendran and will ultimately not endorse either.
Vimala Rajendran, a restaurant owner who has been a strong advocate for communities of color in Chapel Hill, has seen her campaign overshadowed by rape allegations directed against her husband Rush Greenslade. While her spouse’s alleged actions shouldn’t affect Rajendran’s campaign, the situation has unfortunately been distracting. Rajendran’s decision to participate in a video where Greenslade proclaims his innocence of accusations pertaining to the rape of his daughter was not, in our view, a sympathetic one. Rajendran would probably be a good leader on the town council, but we don’t feel it’s responsible to endorse her.
Adam Searing, a nonprofit attorney, is also a candidate worth considering. A staunch environmentalist endorsed by the Sierra Club, Searing is clearly committed to sustainability and environmental protection. But we disagree with his opposition to development of the Greene Tract. Stakeholders, including nearby residents and three local governing bodies have worked on a culturally and environmentally sensitive plan that will create more housing, a school, and economic opportunities for longtime residents and their families. There will be acres of green space plus much-needed affordable housing and greenway connectivity that will serve current residents and welcome future generations.
As for the other candidates’ campaigns, we don’t have enough information to weigh in. But you should read their candidate questionnaires on our website.
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